Monday, June 28, 2010

What you go looking for

My relationship with Jane Austen is an ever evolving thing. I'm not someone who grew up being told about the wonders of Jane Austen. I was 14 when I first tried to read Pride and Prejudice, and I expected not to like it, so I didn't, and quit after 120 pages. Not very long after that I saw the 2005 film adaptation, and loved it. The second time I tried to read Pride and Prejudice I expected to love it, so I did. The next Jane Austen I read was Sense and Sensibility, which I finished but was unenthusiastic about. Pride and Prejudice is a relatively conventional, modern romantic comedy in terms of plot. Sense and Sensibility is not that kind of story--but I expected it to be, and was therefore unsatisfied with it. As I read more and more of Jane Austen's work, and read about other people's reactions to it, I formed a theory.

Step into the world of Jane Austen expecting to love her novels, but don't expect to love them in the same way you expect to enjoy a good romantic comedy film. She's a very clever writer, stylistically, but you sometimes have to pay close attention to appreciate this, and the more you read Jane Austen the better adapted you are to notice. She also writes about relationships very well, but you have to pay as much--if not more--attention to the friendships and sibling relationships as to the romantic leads. Notice that the cover of this edition of Pride and Prejudice has two sisters on it. I wrote my 12-page senior paper in high school about my belief that Jane Austen was more interested in sibling and sibling-like relationships than romantic ones, and that the romantic relationships she wants us to root for are the ones that are based more on a quiet, familial love than on anything very passionate. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's relationships with her sisters are always important, and seeing Darcy's love for his sister does a lot to endear him to her. Knowing this now, I am much better able to love Jane Austen. I read Mansfield Park last, and in some ways it's the least like a modern romantic comedy. Had I read it sooner, I doubt I would have liked it, but I loved it because I knew what to look for in it. Jane Austen is often marketed as romantic comedy, but the best parts of her novels are not always the romantic parts, and if you go looking for the romance and fail to find it in a satisfactory form, you'll be disappointed.

This isn't meant to be so specifically about Jane Austen, but my experience with her writing is a good way to illustrate my point. We often think of our reactions to books as being solely about the book. You read a book and because it wasn't very good or in some way not to your taste, you dislike it. Really, the ultimate verdict about whether you enjoyed a book is the product of a relationship between you and the book. It's affected not only by who you are, but by your actual interaction with the book as you read it, your assumptions about the book's content and style, why you chose to read the book, how long it takes you to read the book, who recommended it to you, and so on. This is probably why, stereotypically at least, no one enjoys books they have to read for school--when you're obliged to read it, you automatically go into it with the feeling that you would rather be doing something else. This is probably also why it's often easier to enjoy a popular novel than a classic. No one told you you ought to read it, you have no guilt associated with not reading it, and you don't feel a need to slog through it just to say you did.

My expectations of other books have influenced my liking for them as well. I started reading Virginia Woolf's novel Jacob's Room knowing nothing about it. It's a very plotless novel. Though it follows Jacob's life, it does so mostly through pretty impressions, in a rather oblique way. I didn't know to expect this, so I kept looking for a plot, and found the book frustrating. Once I googled it and read a bit about it, I knew what I should be looking for, and I started to enjoy the book. I often have problems reading books that I regard as being very American, or that sound that way from the blurb on the cover. For some reason I expect not to like these books--To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example--though they're good books and once I start reading I know I would probably get into it. With such books, if I don't read the blurb or know much about the story, I have a much easier time liking it.

All this leads me to wonder about my relationship to books. Surely if you know what you're looking for, you have a better time seeing what's really there. I've heard people who don't like Jane Austen say they feel like they're missing something, like there's something there they aren't seeing. So if you read a book knowing what you're looking to find in it, are you seeing the book more clearly? Or do you see a book most clearly if you know nothing about it but what is within its pages? What if two people love Jane Austen, but see and love very different things in her books? Are classic books, which everyone reads with certain expectations, classic because they are more complicated and therefore must be read more carefully, with expectations in mind? Is it easier to pick up any old novel you've never heard of before, read it, and like it? Perhaps our assumptions about certain books decreases our chance of liking them, or even reading them in the first place. Maybe this is why so-called great literature is taught in schools. Sometimes we need to be taught how to read a certain book, and the chances of this are higher if that book is one we have preconceived notions about, as is frequently the case with classics.

And it's just occurred to me--reading book blogs probably lowers the number of books you read without any expectations.

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